The Gong Fu of Photography

Photography: Skill through hard work

I have been pondering the meaning of this post on and off for the better part of a decade and thought it was about time that I tried to put my thoughts down on virtual paper. What this blog post is not: This is not about Kung Fu martial arts, it is not even about martial arts in general… it is about the original meaning of gōngfu and how it relates to learning the craft of photography

Obviously, with my passion for Martial Arts and my Photography, there will be an quite a lot of cross over. My Martial Arts flavours my approach to photography and my photography helps me see my martial arts in a new light.


So what do I mean by the Gong Fu of Photography? Well lets break down the words and explore their meaning.

Gong Fu – as explained on Wikipedia

In its original meaning, kung fu can refer to any skill achieved through hard work and practice, not necessarily martial. The Chinese literal equivalent of “Chinese martial art” would be 中國武術 zhōngguó wǔshù.[4]

In Chinese, Gōngfu (功夫) is a compound of two words, combining  (gōng) meaning “work”, “achievement”, or “merit”, and  (fū) which is alternately treated as being a word for “man” or as a particle or nominal suffix with diverse meanings (the same character is used to write both). A literal rendering of the first interpretation would be “achievement of man”, while the second is often described as “work and time/effort”. Its connotation is that of an accomplishment arrived at by great effort of time and energy.


Photography – as explained on Wikipedia

The word photography derives from the Greek φωτός (phōtos), genitive of φῶς (phōs), “light” and γραφή (graphé) “representation by means of lines” or “drawing”, together meaning “drawing with light


So, we can say that this article is about learning the Skill of Photography through the application of hard work and practice.

There is no silver bullet, there are no secrets.. or rather the secrets are just open truths that we are not ready to hear yet. If you doubt this, try explaining the Exposure Triangle or Inverse Square Law to a photographic newbie and watch their eyes glaze over!

So where do we start? What are the set of skills for a Photographer?



In the simplest terms, we need to start seeing everything that is in the frame and decide if it adds or subtracts from the image we are trying to create. Starting with repositioning your viewpoint to remove lampposts coming out the subjects head, learning when to apply the Rule of Thirds and when to break the ‘Rules’. Moving on to understanding the Golden Mean or Golden Spiral.. and finally coming to an understanding that these rules are only guidelines and that you must decide for yourself when to apply them and when to break them.

Technical Geekery

Know your camera, know your lights, know your gear.. This is all about becoming an engineer of photography, so that you can let the artist free.

Read the manuals, try all the settings become comfortable with your gear so that when time is of the essence.. you do not pause, you do not stutter and you get the image that others miss. As with other aspects of photography, perfect practice really does make perfect

Learn about balancing ambient light and light from strobes or speedlights, so that you can get the images that wow.

But all of the geekery in the world will not make you the best photographer you can be.. for that you need 2 more things


By this I don’t mean you have to be able to see to make great imagery.. (as this guy proves) but rather that you have a good idea what you are trying to communicate to  your audience.

Your Vision and Style will develop the more you shoot what you enjoy.. you will find your way of seeing the world. If you want to explore further, I can happily recommend the Craft & Vision series of e-books by David duChemin & friends.

which leads my final area to look at..

People Skills

Whether you are photographing people or dealing with clients (or scary security people), a degree of people skills will make life a lot more productive and produce much better imagery. Dealing with people can often be intimidating, which is one of the reasons most photographers start out with landscape photography.

So how to build this skill? the easiest way is to find a willing friend that lets you practice your people skills while photographing them. 2 things to remember..

  1. Concentrate on the people first and gear second (see know your gear above)
  2. Get yourself in front of the camera and experience what they experience, it creates a much better understanding

If you are looking for an example of good rapport with your model (and also a great font of knowledge of all things lighting) check out Frank Doorhof from the Netherlands.

Each of the areas mentioned above are worthy of a lifetime’s study to perfect them. This is where the Gung Fu of Photography comes into its own… learn these skills and practice, practice, practice. Like martial arts, there is a depth to photography that is worth our time and effort.

Quite simply put,

Owning a camera doesn’t make you a photographer, it makes you a camera owner

Learn the craft.

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